Election Reform Arena Shifts to States

NEW YORK -- Nine months after the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) -- whose passage was sparked by the disputed 2000 presidential vote -- became law, the action on election reform has shifted to the state level. State governments are now charged with implementing the legislation, and while that poses the danger that some states will take the opportunity to cook up new methods for voter suppression, it also offers election reform advocates the best chance in a long time to improve the way America votes. Unfortunately, this issue has received little attention as the drama has moved out of Washington and into state capitols. But the dangers and opportunities presented by HAVA make it a topic that people concerned about our democracy ignore at their own peril.

When HAVA -- which earmarked $3.8 billion to the states over the next three years for improvements in voting technology and election administration -- passed in October of last year, its complications and contradictions were at once apparent. On the one hand, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the chief legislative sponsor, said the law "will make the central premise of our democracy -- that the people are sovereign -- ring even more truly in the years to come." Common Cause hailed HAVA as "the first major piece of civil-rights legislation in the 21st century." The NAACP described it as "a large step in the right direction."

At the same time, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced that HAVA "not only fails to solve many of the problems of the 2000 elections, but also creates new barriers to voting." The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the law will "create new barriers to voting for eligible citizen Latino voters." And voting rights advocates like Greg Palast and Martin Luther King III fear that computerized voting systems without paper trails -- so-called "paperless ballots" -- will be vulnerable to partisan manipulation or technological fraud. It doesn't take a genius to realize that HAVA is a complicated piece of legislation. Its ultimate impact will depend on what state governments do over the next few years.

The bill's detractors have focused principally on the voting identification requirements, which Republicans insisted upon as the price of a bipartisan bill. HAVA requires that first-time voters who registered by mail show identification -- such as a driver's license, government ID card or other specified documentation -- in order to vote. In addition, when they register, voters must give their driver's license number or -- if they do not have a driver's license -- the last four digits of their Social Security number (if they have one). In cases where the state can verify these numbers, new voters who registered by mail and provided one of these numbers would not have to show identification at the polls.

Critics say these provisions will heighten the opportunities for confusion and voter intimidation. Some envision partisan operatives fighting for victories with "Ballot Security Squads;" others worry about the role of some election officials, who may have a long history of suspicion or outright hostility toward new voters, particularly voters of color and newly naturalized citizens. Lawmakers in some states, like Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, California and Massachusetts, have introduced legislation to enact even more rigid identification requirements in the guise of complying with HAVA. Those who care about increasing participation will have to fight hard -- probably in court, ultimately -- against provisions that would discriminate against poor voters, voters of color, young people or new citizens.

But all this is by no means the full story. HAVA contains some elements that should improve the election process greatly. HAVA mandates that voters be able to correct mistakes in their ballots, or to cast provisional ballots if their names do not appear on the registration list or if they do not have IDs. The law requires polling places to have at least one fully accessible and private voting machine for disabled voters, and machines that can perform in other langauges. Each state must create integrated, computerized, statewide voter registration lists. HAVA also dedicates federal funds for better training of poll workers and voter education.

Another important feature of the bill is the mandated "commission" process. To get the first round of federal funding, each state must develop a plan detailing how it will comply with the new HAVA mandates. The plan has to be developed by a diverse and representative commission, which has to be appointed by the chief election official in each state. The commission must offer opportunities for public comment prior to submitting their plan to the federal government. In addition, the governor must sign off on the plan, and every legislature will also get involved.

Already some states are shining in this commission process, while some are failing miserably. In New York, when the Board of Elections appointed a broadly representative commission, Gov. George Pataki named a new chief election official and created a small, tightly disciplined committee. On the other hand, in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island and Texas, good and diverse commissions have been formed. In many states, the commission process is still underway, so there is still a great opportunity for reformers to be involved.

What should election-reform advocates seek from this process? First, we must ensure that the machine replacements and other procedural fixes maximize voting participation. The machines must permit citizens with disabilities to cast private votes; they must be accessible to voters with limited English proficiency; and they should accommodate forms of ranked voting such as Instant Runoff Voting. Sufficient funds need to be set aside to complete a computerized list process that provides access and real-time updating for officials at the precinct level. And training programs need to be provided for an expanded and more knowledgeable pool of election workers.

The second major challenge is to ensure that the newly created voter-identification processes meet federal requirements without adding additional hoops and burdens. States should be encouraged to accept the kinds of identity documents that poor people use, such as Social Security check statements, Section 8 rent statements, homeless shelter ID cards and Electronic Benefit Cards -- not just drivers' licenses and student IDs. In addition, states must recognize that the databases used to verify a voter's identity are not completely accurate -- whether because names have been changed by marriage, or because names of Asian American voters have been inverted, or because common names can be held by more than one person. It is therefore crucial that the ID requirements be implemented in a scrupulously nondiscriminatory way.

Beyond these specific fights, HAVA gives reformers an opportunity to raise broader issues of participation. For instance, the federal funds available for "voter education" could be used to educate citizens with felony convictions about their right to vote after leaving prison or completing their sentences. The funds could be spent on outfitting new voting machines with the technological capacity for desirable reforms like Instant Runoff Voting. Or the money could pay for a program of Election Day Registration (EDR), in which voters can register and vote at the polls on election day. States with EDR have turnouts 8 percent to 15 percent higher than the national average. Connecticut, Hawaii, Nevada, North Carolina, West Virginia and the District of Columbia all considering EDR as part of their election-reform debates. In addition to EDR, every state has its own election-reform ideas that have been discussed for years but not acted upon. This is the chance to move them.

The jury is still out on the long-run impact of HAVA. But we do know that this is a moment when state-level work can truly lead to change. Groups in the national civil-rights and voting-rights communities, under the auspices of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, have been working together to encourage the best possible implementation of the law, beginning with the appropriation of the full amount of funds authorized by the legislation. The real battle, however, will be in the states. Effective organizing for an expansive and inclusive democracy over the next several months will create genuine new opportunities to expand the vote -- but there is no time to waste.

Miles Rapoport is president of Demos, a national research and advocacy organization. He was Connecticut's secretary of state from 1995 to 1999 and served 10 years in the Connecticut legislature.

 

The jury is still out on the long-run impact of HAVA. But we do know that this is a moment when state-level work can truly lead to change. Groups in the national civil-rights and voting-rights communities, under the auspices of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, have been working together to encourage the best possible implementation of the law, beginning with the appropriation of the full amount of funds authorized by the legislation.